In the Spirit of Equus

 


"Well, howdy there, nei-ei-ei-ei-gh-bor!"

       
Thus spake famed equine actor Mr. Ed from the hit 60's TV show "Mr. Ed", in what many historians cite as the apex of American television.

I credit Mr. Ed (played by the incomparable Bamboo Harvester) for initiating a lifelong love of horses within me, although why they would train a horse to harvest bamboo is anyone's guess.  Remember how he used to move his lips to the words?  Trick photography?  CGI?  Someone glued some puppet strings to his lips and pulled on them?  By way of Wikipedia, here's the lovable Wilbur, himself, played by Alan Young:

Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof.  In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a scene!  Ed was very smart.

Indeed.

For you equinistic aficionados out there, herein I'll review a number of horse-related movies and documentaries and provide fourteen video clips of some choice moments.  I'll also drag the concept of Intelligent Design into the mix, then we'll examine four ways a single person can manually bring down a horse to lying flat on its side, then touch upon the mysterious 'fifth gait' and its role in ancient history.

Just another day at the races.
 


 
Since I piqued your curiosity with that Intelligent Design remark, let's get to it first.

From the 'Misc' page in my Bag O' Clips:

I am intrigued that horses exist in the first place.  They don't really seem to have much place in the animal world, and what good do the hooves and massive amounts of muscle do, outside of enabling it to run at a decent clip, over any kind of terrain, and for long periods of time?  But what good does any of that do in the animal world?  Why does practically every other mammal seem to get along just fine without either of these attributes?

A cheetah is fast because it uses speed to get food.  A mountain goat has hooves because it walks on sharp rocks.  An elephant has muscle and endurance because it migrates hundreds of miles for days on end.  But a horse walks on soft prairie, doesn't migrate long distances, and all it has to do is move ten feet if it's looking for a fresh patch of grass upon which to graze.  So there really doesn't seem to be any reason for a horse to exist in the first place.

But then you bring man into the picture, and here's this absolutely 100% perfect mode of transportation just waiting for him.  You simply couldn't have drawn up anything better, up to and including the level back upon which two human beings can sit perfectly.  Personally, I think the Intelligent Design people are looking in the wrong places for proof.

Indeed.
 

DVD Review

I'll review these in the order I watched them.  I saw Seabiscuit and the documentary years ago, Secretariat a few months ago, and the rest within the past week, which inspired this post.  As usual, all DVD clips are high quality and designed to be played in full-screen mode.

Seabiscuit — This remains my pick of the litter.  Superb story line, directing, casting, music score, and with a delightful touch of the surreal as it occasionally morphs into a black & white newsreel documentary denoting Seabiscuit's fame as seen from the masses.  If you want to see William H. Macy at his comedic best, here ya go.  A clever, engrossing movie from first minute to last.

Since I already had a clip from it on the site, I'll just use it here.  It's in the 'Music' section of my Bag O' Clips as part of a collection of movies that use a very understated music score during the action scenes; in this case, a soft acoustic guitar and some guy humming along during the mad fury of a horse race.  But it puts most of the above accolades on display, as well as the sharp photography and editing.


Seabiscuit: American Experience
— A nice documentary on the li'l feller and bolsters that the above movie portrayed the story fairly accurately.  He really was small for a race horse.  When they talk about a race horse having heart, that was Seabiscuit.
 

Secretariat — Also a marvelous movie, in particular because the woman they cast for the lead (Diane Lane) was absolutely brilliant.  Rather than playing the usual Hollywood role of 'tough business gal' (see The Horse Whisperer, below), she epitomized the word resolute.  She never lost her charm and femininity, yet never wavered a step from her allotted path.  The scriptwriters have to be given a special hat tip for this one because they set the table, and Lane carried it off to perfection.

The only down side is that John Malkovich, who I usually think is outstanding, plays a French horse trainer and earned the ignoble "Worst Accent In The History of Cinema" award from every critic on the planet.  Don't give up your day job, John.

I'd only add that the horse they used was friggin' awesome.  Secretariat was supposed to be pretty hefty in real life, and they found the perfect actor stand-in stunt double horse to replace him.  When you hear the term breathing fire, that was Secretariat.

Here are two merged news conferences with a dash of humor.  There's a clip of Big Red down below.

   
The Horse Whisperer
— What a disappointment this thing was.  Not only did Robert Redford not do much whispering to the horses, but the main characters played horribly Hollywoodish stereotypical roles.  She was the tough business gal, taking no prisoners, unafraid to crush underlings beneath the iron heel of her size 7 pumps.  A first-class bitch, in other words.  But within days of being around the rough, tough cowboy, she's acting like a 14-year-old girl on a date with a pop idol.  Simpering might be the word.

Her kid is the most sour, ungrateful, wretched person you've ever met… until everybody else goes to elaborate, sometimes dangerous, lengths to tame her damn horse and she finally gets to ride it.  And just look at what a happy little girl she is!

Redford really wimped out in a couple of places when he should have actually been the rough, tough cowboy he was portraying — and why the handsomest over-60 cowboy within a radius of 1,200 miles would fall for The Bitch From Business Hell is anybody's guess.  Anyway, she leaves him at the end, so I'm delighted to report that the movie has a happy ending.
 

Buck — A documentary on Buck Brannaman, the 'horse whisperer' Redford's character in the movie was (extremely very roughly) based on.  This documentary is eminently engaging from start to finish.

One thing it highlights is that horses don't need to be 'broken' in the traditional way.  Like dogs, the trick is to first get them interested in learning for its own sake, then the real tricks come easily afterward.  Why get them to perform through fear when you can get them to want to do it?

What's particularly notable about the DVD is how much common sense Buck passes along during a single session.  The adages and axioms, gems, nuggets and mots just pour out of the guy.  And what he does with the horse here is, well, typical Buck.


Horses Of The World
— The 'world' part of the title is just a wee bit misleading.  It takes place at a dressage school in Vienna.  Perhaps they meant the school was 'of the world', not the horses.  The second part was inside a traveling Swiss circus and some of the dressage was fairly impressive.  And I'm forced to admit you don't often get to see a lot of giraffe-busting.

Dressage is the art of teaching horses to step, jump and run instantly in various directions upon command, including sidestepping and lying down.  It was originally used to train horses during World War I to jump over land mines and such, then became an actual discipline.  If you see a bunch of circus horses doing a sideways shuffle in tandem, that's dressage at the max.  From this point of view, the movie was quite interesting, and the old guy who started the school really did have a masterful way of handling them.

Oh, wait, did I say 'jump' up above?  Surely, I meant performing the airs above the ground.

Bottom line?  If you're racing across enemy territory on horseback and suddenly spot a land mine directly in front of you, you want your horse to know the Corvette.

Here's a clip of the famous Lipizzaner horses that displays some of the moves.

      
Horses: The Story of Equus
— This was an IMAX production so, as you'd expect, the photography was just breathtaking in places.  It's the concurrent story line of three horses born on the same day and the three very different paths that await them.  Crushingly, it's only 45 minutes long, presumably because it's not a 'movie', but an IMAX 'presentation' or some such.  Very disappointing in that regard.

It also apparently needs to come with a small disclaimer.  A number of reviewers on Netflix criticized it because it wasn't "accurate", but it's not trying to be a documentary, it's trying to be — as it says in the title — a story.  As such, there are actors (the horses), scripted lines ("Nei-ei-ei-gh!"), and it wasn't 'accurate' in the sense that, for one, horses won't run miles into unfamiliar territory away from the nearest herd as one of these did.  But the three stories are nicely done and it's certainly worth the rental.  And the three actors stand-ins stunt doubles horses they used were beautiful.

Personal note:  I've seen lots of newborn puppies and kittens over the years, and some of them were the cutest little rascals in the galaxy, but none of them touched me half as much as the above does.  The birth of a horse seems to be one of God's greatest touches; Mother Nature at her apex; evolution in its finest hour.  From the spindliest of starts comes one of the most brilliantly intuitive creatures on the planet, and, unlike every other creature out there, one that's perfectly designed for us.  Puppies and kittens are cute, but there's something about the above that borders on the edge of magical.
 

Next, let's take a look at the PETA-inspired age we're living in.  We'll harken back to the days when men were men and animals were animals — as crazy as that sounds.

From the IMDb 'Trivia' section for The Shawshank Redemption:

The American Humane Association monitored the filming of scenes involving Brooks' crow.  During the scene where he fed it a maggot, the AHA objected on the grounds that it was cruel to the maggot, and required they use a maggot that had died from natural causes.  One was found, and the scene was filmed.

I presume no further commentary on the state to which reality has sunk is necessary.

So, imagine how refreshing it was to be watching the 1976 The Outlaw Josie Wales the other night and see the following.  In any movie made today, the horses falling off the raft would have to be computer-generated, simply because the 'animal cruelty' complaints would come roaring in.  Imagine, if you dare: actually using the animals in the movie as…animals!

The modern mind recoils in horror at the very thought.

Under the same heading, the following scene without question would have been viewed by the American Humane Society and PETA as "undue cruelty to animals" because — wait for it — they were treating the horses like… horses!

Here's Clint exhibiting a feat that, in a way, is truly amazing.  How does a 175-pound man bring a 2,000-pound animal completely to the ground?

Leverage.

There are actually three interesting things to note about that last clip.  Not only (1) is this an actor pulling this off, but (2) from what I can tell listening to his footsteps with headphones during the break between horses, this was all done in one take, and (3) notice how he actually uses two different take-down methods; letting the first horse 'walk' itself backward into the ground, but actually manhandling the second one down using sheer leverage, as nicely illustrated in the preview pic.

Which isn't to say those are the only ways to bring down a horse, of course.  Here are two more.  First, by command, as he instructs him down with the long rod he's holding across the forelock, then the second time as he physically bends the forelock to trigger the chain of events.

      
As to their gaits, there are two interesting facets to note.

For years there was a heated argument over whether or not a horse lifted all four feet off the ground simultaneously during a gallop.  It happens so quickly that it's literally too fast for the naked eye to see.  It seems like they do, but, then, the earth seems flat, too.  When 'moving pictures' came along, Eadweard Muybridge set up a string of cameras along a race track that fired off one by one as the horse broke threads running across the track.  And that settled that.

From Secretariat, here's a marvelous remake of the above:

What a unique, incredible creation the horse is.
 

And then there's the mysterious fifth gait.  A horse naturally has four gaits (walk, trot, canter and gallop), but ancient history resounds with stories of a mysterious, arcane fifth gait whose manner of teaching was known only to an elite few.  Like the wheel, entire civilizations rose and fell without discovering it, and given that it probably increased the accuracy of the cavalry's arrows by 500%, it was an immense advantage in battle for the few civilizations that discovered and used it.

Ever tried to shoot an arrow at an enemy on the battlefield from horseback?  Of course you have.  Not quite as easy as the movies make it look, is it?  You're bouncing all over hell and gone.

Now try it from what today is commonly called the pace:

Here's a good example.  Note how the guy's bobbing up and down while the horse is galloping, then how he suddenly smooths out at the far bend (right behind the first tent) as he shifts it into battle mode, then watch him kick that sucker into gear on the backside.

And just how was this elusive secret taught to the horses?  For that, let's turn to historical fiction writer Wilbur Smith and one of his marvelous novels on ancient Egypt, 'Warlock'.  In the following, Nefer is the horseman, Krus and Dov are his chariot's mounts.  Nefer is having trouble with the horses when throwing javelins or shooting arrows from his moving chariot.

After a long pause, Taita spoke softly.  'Krus senses when you are going to loose the javelin or shoot the arrow.  He steps high at the moment, chopping with his right fore.  Dov feels it and flinches.'

Nefer thought about it.  'Yes!  I have felt the break in their stride at the moment of release.'

'It can throw your aim by a thumb's breadth.'

'What can I do?'

'You must teach them the fifth gait.'

'There are only four.  Walk, trot, canter and gallop.'

'There is another.  I call it the glide., but it must be taught.  Most horses will never learn.'

'Help me teach them.'

They took the horses out of the harnesses, and Nefer went up on Dov's back.  He took her for a short canter, then brought her back to where Taita stood.  The old man made her lift her right front foot and tied a leather thong around her forelock.  Attached to the thong was a perfectly round, water-worn pebble wrapped in leather.  Dov put her head down and sniffed it curiously.  'Take her round again,' said Taita.

Nefer prodded his toes behind her shoulder and she started forward.  The pebble dangled on her leading foot, and instinctively she tried to rid herself of the nuisance, flipping her leading foot with each pace.  It changed her whole motion.  Her back no longer came up to slap into his buttocks, there was no longer any rocking movement, that lunge.  'She flows like a river under me!' Nefer shouted with delight.  'Like the Nile herself!'

Within two days he was able to take off the bobber, and she would change from the canter or gallop into the glide at his command.  The word of command was 'Nile'.

Ironically, today the gait has been reduced to the lowly role of carriage races, but it certainly had its day of mystery and glory.

Hail to thee, noble steed.